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Hackschooling with Video Games

Hackschooling with Video Games


During a TEDx talk in February 2013, homeschooled 13-year-old Logan LaPlante coined the term “hackschooling”. As its website explains,

“The concept is that education, like everything else, is open to being hacked or improved, not just by working within the current system, but by going outside the educational establishment to find better ways to accomplish the same goals.” (Source)

Since the 1980’s video games have been recognized to have great potential as a form of hackschooling (even though this well predated the term). But although people appreciate progressive methods of schooling, in truth most would not support its widespread implementation, or even its practice in their children’s’ schools. Video games in the worlds of parenting and education have a reputation to be violent and time-wasting , but limiting the potential of video games to recreation is extremely outdated. It is rapidly becoming apparent that the practices of both developing and interacting with video games require dynamic thinking, action, and learning that present unimaginable potential for educational purposes. This repurposing of video games seems impractical and too progressive to many, but their immense potential as educational tools is quite obvious. Reading a book on how to ride a bike will never teach you as much as riding it would.

Video game development is a recurring method of teaching and practicing concepts in Computer Science mainly due to one reason: interaction. Constructing a game (or anything) from scratch proves to make for a highly enhanced learning process. The interaction with and direct observation of each building block that forms the game creates an inimitable well-rounded learning experience. Through this type of learning, students are able to thoroughly understand concepts through understanding each of its parts and their relationships to one another. 

For this reason, the hack of video games as educational tools in classrooms may be more supported and more realistic than we had thought. Especially in the past 10 years, universities around the United States have been developing games to engage and challenge middle school students in subjects such as math, engineering, science and languages. Researchers at the University of Connecticut developed Operation LAPIS, an RPG game that immerses the player in Roman civilization and presenting them with situations that require them to read and respond to clues in Latin in order to maneuver the game through the view of the character.

Screenshot from Operation LAPIS (Source

In 2009 Northeastern University developed Geckoman, a video game that aims to teach students the difficult concepts of nanotechnology through game levels that illustrate each nanoscopic scale. Allowing students to have an interactive worldview representation of such concepts creates a well-rounded learning experience that cannot be imitated through textbook learning.

The most successful and popular of these university-developed educational video games is Scratch, devleoped by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scratch is an interactive programing language  that combines these ideas of enhanced learning through development of and interaction with video games. Scratch is a simplified computer programming language that allows users to visualize and build experiments in math, science, and computer science projects using existing scripts of code rather than by forming scripts with text. The programming language has grown extremely popular due to its innovative philosophy of flexibility, sociability, and creativity in computer code, with over 1.3 million registered users as of January 2013. However, its true success in the academic world is due to Scratch’s interactive teaching method. As MIT describes,

“The system is always live, with no run/edit switch, so commands or code snippets can be run with a click, and graphical feedback shows execution. Variables and lists have concrete visualizations, so the effect of data operations can be seen immediately. These features support and reward discovery through tinkering.” (Source)

Users are able to observe the actions and consequences of each piece of code and its connection to another, and therefore thoroughly understand the process and concept of what they are learning.

Screenshot of a Scratch interface (Source)

Scratch’s design and success prove the enriched learning that video games unlock in education. This is not at all similar to other forms of media that can be educational, such as television or audio. The visual understanding and the interaction provided by video games hacks learning in a way that is too powerful to remain out of classrooms. 






I find this topic very interesting! I have a younger brother that is Logan's age whose main goal in life seems to be how high he can level up in Titan Fall or Borderlands 2. I know he is not the only young person to be enticed by gaming systems. A lot of students put schoolwork on hold to work on their characters and their stats (...even I'm guilty of that sometimes). This new term, "hackschooling," offers a really interesting way to remedy that.

I realize that the games that I mentioned above will be very difficult to aply to hackscooling simply because of funding (the games that my brother plays take years to develop and produce, and that is with the backing of big gaming industries). However, Operation LAPIS seems to be on the cospe of crossing into more "hardcore" gaming. My brother and other young people would surely spend a lot more time on latin if that was what it took them to progress in their game, for example.

The game Scratch seemed a little confusing to me, but I can also see its potential. Is it the type of system where the user creates his or own video game? If so, that's a great way to attract younger students to explore the sciences you mentioned. Creating video games (even if they are just online flash games) is definitely an interest of Logan and my brother's age group.

This is a very interesting article - I really would love to see more gaming overlap into education! 


Thanks for your comment, Jade! I see how my explanation of Scratch may not have been clear enough, and so I thank you for your feedback and I'm going to try and edit this post to explain it a bit better. But yes, Scratch is a pretty diverse and dynamic platform, but it is very often used to design simple games as a way of learning/teaching concepts in math, science, and especially computer science. It is designed to be used both by adults and by children as young as 8 years old. Whatever age Logan is, I'm sure he'd enjoy giving it a try!


Hey Eugenia!

I certainly believe that videogames have educational potential. I remember when I played NBA 2K11 I learned the names and teams of literally every basketball player and coach in the league. My friends in school used to spend hours debating the merits of various guns in COD, despite the fact that they will likely never see any of them. If nothing else, gamification of certain repetitive tasks can make rote memorization a lot more fun. Usually though, you can learn a lot about the persistent worlds that video games maintain, and that because that knowledge is presented as diegetic game information or tools, it becomes operational knowledge that is dissimilar from the kind we learn from books or school. The question is, is that knowledge more or less valuable to the player/student?

Programming as education/education as programming, is a fascinating topic. I especially think the concept of a compiler is a useful idea that could be applied to furthering education – because it gives instantaneous feedback to students while allowing them to try their understanding of more abstract concepts. This would free up teachers/TAs to spend time evaluating and expanding students‘ understanding and not their test performance. I’ve never used Scratch before, but I know Michael Littman is a big fan of it and is using it in CS080 as a way of teaching introductory programming. How might it be used to create other games, like the LAPIS one?


Clark Abt wrote Serious Games in 1970! It's about time some of you read it. All tests already are games, but for stakes that usually escape the test makers' consciousness. When kids - of any age - view tests as serious games they can address skills needed to demonstrate mastery - no matter what you know. Skills like eliminating three out of four multiple choice answers, or answering those questions you feel most comfortable with first, or capturing old questions as flash cards and playing in teams like Spelling Bees of old.

Engaging people in more complex gaming activities - teams, sports and sport like, simulations, etc. - only makes those game-skills a little more apparent. Sometimes those skills can address key real-world skills, like those identified by the SCANS commission of the 1990's, and later. Sometimes they can build cohesion and collaboration skills that can transfer to other activities. In any case they are far less boring than pretending a test means more than winning a game.

And that's the failure of this dialog. Recognize that all of it is a game, and that the game for the teacher is how to win with the least pain, most joy, and best community consequences. It really is no more complex than that, whether a spelling "game" in grade three, gaming a doctoral committee much later, or managing your Board of Directors in an even less "real," "real world."